Dukakis, Once Burned, Refuses to Be Optimistic About 2008

Mr. Dukakis’ door-to-door evangelism is rooted in his own political story, unique among major national figures of this era. He literally started at the bottom of the totem poll in 1960 (when he was 27), organizing a slate of candidates that won control of the Democratic committee in Brookline, Mass. Two years later, Chairman Dukakis door-knocked his way to one of the 160 seats in the Massachusetts State House of Representatives, which ultimately served as the springboard to his first statewide bid, an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 1970. (He and Jimmy Carter are the only two presidential nominees from either party in modern memory to have served in a state legislature.)

Four years later he won the governorship—a job he lost in 1978 and reclaimed in 1982, he is adamant, only because of the precinct-based organization he’d assembled. And last fall he returned to his roots: Deval Patrick recruited 10,000 volunteers for his winning gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts, and Michael and Kitty Dukakis signed up as block captains in Brookline.

So far, Mr. Dukakis is staying out of this year’s Democratic race, preferring, he explained, to work with the D.N.C. on his organizing idea. (His wife, Kitty, is supporting Mr. Obama.)

But he’s quick to defend Mr. Obama against the effort to paint him as inexperienced.

“If Obama wins, he will have had 11 years in elected politics—seven at the state level,” he says. “That counts for a lot for guys like me, the fact that it was in the trenches, and that he was an extremely effective legislator.”

Hillary Clinton, he offered, “is doing a great job as a candidate.”

He said that she’s a great person and a terrific senator, but added that her enduring negative poll numbers are “a problem.” Mr. Dukakis recalled a recent meeting of the National Council of State Legislatures, where he found himself mingling with the North Carolina delegation.

“These are Democrats,” he pointed out. “And they’re really scared to death that Hillary will be the nominee, because they think in a place like North Carolina, you know … And so I said, ‘Would Obama be any better?’ They said, yeah, Obama would be better. Now isn’t that interesting? These guys are hard-nosed pols from North Carolina. These folks are 12- and 15-year veterans of the North Carolina legislature.”

Did they say why?

“Apparently it’s the negatives on Hillary that for some reason bothers them. I’m just reporting what I heard. I have no idea about the politics of North Carolina. But they seemed to think they had a better shot in North Carolina with Obama than they had with Hillary.”

Of course, if Hillary wants Michael Dukakis’ prescription for overcoming her shaky poll numbers, she’ll hear the same thing any of the other Democratic candidates would: Start signing up those 185,000 precinct captains.

“If [the Democratic nominee] did it, would I be confident?” Mr. Dukakis asked. “Yeah. If we were doing it now, and if a particular candidate were doing it, he or she would be at a huge advantage.”

Dukakis, Once Burned, Refuses to Be Optimistic About 2008